A forbidden love, a tragic death, and a young woman who shattered racial barriers in both pop music and the big screen should have been more than enough dramatic fodder for a movie based on the life of one of Detroit's biggest success stories. Unfortunately, Lifetime's Aaliyah: The Princess of R & B is anything but dramatic, getting universally panned from every corner of the Internet this weekend.
The half-baked movie tries to pack in so many aspects of the singer's life — from her 1989 performance on Star Search to her illegal marriage to producer R. Kelly as a teenager to her untimely death at the age of 22 — that in the end it never really sinks its teeth into anything, intent on merely telling the audience how great Aaliyah was rather than showing them.
Actually, the movie seems even more intent to talk about how great R. Kelly is. As Jezebel points out, "The script is so skeletal and basic that it's funny." "The writers seem to particularly want to make it clear that R. Kelly was a hot producer in the '90s," Jezebel notes. "When Aaliyah's uncle Barry Hankerson (his manager) talks to R. Kelly in the club, (Kelly) (played by Clé Bennett) says, 'I'm only like the most in-demand writer and producer in the game right now.' Later, Aaliyah says, 'Mom, he's like the king of R&B.' Later again, her brother Rashad says, 'The hottest producer in the music business wants to work with you.'"
Then there's the problem with the casting, with many actors barely resembling their real-life counterparts. "Who made the choice to make Timbaland Gluten Free, and Missy Elliott thinner and lighter than she’s ever been?" Complex asks. The movie even inspired a meme, #LifetimeBeLike, in which viewers made their own horrible casting decisions for hypothetical Lifetime movies.
There can be a joy, of course, in watching cheesy movies. "But what’s really enjoyable when you’re watching something that’s doomed for failure is watching it while a million other people are watching and live-tweeting it," The Root writes. "This is what social media, more specifically black Twitter, is made for." Unfortunately, Lifetime tried and failed to cash in on the activity that lit up social media during the movie, catching plenty of flack for tweets like, "The chemistry is so real right now. #AaliyahMovie" — earning accusations that they were glorifying pedophilia.
One of the harshest critics was another producer Aaliyah worked closely with, Timbaland, who flooded his Instagram account with a torrent of posts about the movie. "A lot of people keep asking me, am I watching that bullshit?" he said. "Evidently not. No way. Not Timbo." He also posted a series of memes, including one that featured executive producer Wendy Williams which read, "Wendy Williams, You know you fucked up, right?"
The refusal of Aaliyah's family to cooperate with the filmmakers could have been a blessing in disguise if played right. Not bound to the wishes of her family to make an accurate story, why not just go all-out speculative? Instead, The Princess of R & B is a slave to its source material, the biography Aaliyah: More Than a Woman. The relationship between Kelly and Aaliyah is speculative, but leaves much to the imagination, sort of nonchalantly and abruptly sprung on the audience. In the movie, Kelly plays it cool, not particularly disturbed by his attraction to a 15-year old nor hinting at his well-documented legal troubles with other minors. A supposition of how exactly Kelly and Aaliyah tied the knot — apparently by falsifying a marriage certificate — could have been interesting. Instead, we just see the aftermath of their marriage, a toothless scene in which Aaliyah's parents essentially give Kelly a stern talking-to and ask for an annulment. Fleshing out the details of their uncomfortable and illicit romance would have made for a vastly more interesting movie.
Of course, that wouldn't save the movie from its biggest problem — the lack of music. Lacking the full rights to Aaliyah's recordings, the movie makes do with re-recorded versions of some of Aalyah's most inconsequential songs. Imagine Walk the Line without the songs, or as VH1 says, "Not including major Aaliyah milestones like 'Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,' 'One in a Million,' or 'Try Again' makes any film about the singer seem incomplete, unsatisfying, and dull. It’s like not including 'Thriller' in a movie about Michael Jackson or '…Baby One More Time' in a Britney Spears biopic."
As Complex points out, the only songs the production team could secure are ones like “Journey to the Past” — "not exactly among the first 10 songs (Aaliyah) is best known for. The same goes for her cover of Marvin Gaye’s 'Got to Give It Up' —a track from One in a Million that did lead to a music video, though not one that anyone outside of her core fans ever cares to revisit."
(A side note — the ownership of Aaliyah's catalog has made purchasing her music, even 13 years after her death, a pain in the ass. On iTunes, you'll only find Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number, and frustratingly, the still-phenomenal "Are You That Somebody?" is only available with an album-only purchase of the The Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack.)
(Another missed opportunity with the movie is the failure to give it any timely hook. Aaliyah, without a doubt, paved the way for Beyoncé, released at the end of 2013. Aaliyah's self-titled record could also be seen in paving the way for other recent acts like the Weeknd, the xx, and James Blake. A Drake-helmed posthumous Aaliyah album was even announced, but finally abandoned earlier this year. 13 years after her death, Aaliyah's ghost still hangs in the pop music landscape, but the movie does little to explain why.)
It may very well be that Aaliyah accomplished so much in her short 22 years that would be impossible for anyone to do it all justice in just two hours. As Chicago Now neatly summarized, "It felt like listening to a Aaliyah's records on 45 speed when it should have been on 33 1/3."